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Review: EXISTENCE by David Brin

June 26 2012

Published by Tor
US Release Date: Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Available in Hardcover and Kindle editions

In Short: Earth’s pile of problems gets more complicated when an astronaut garbage man reels in a crystal that provides contact with other beings.
Recommended: Yes – especially if you have ADD.

“Already the danger is so great, for every individual, every class, every people, that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. Time foes not suffer itself to be halted; there is no question of prudent retreat or wise renunciation. Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.” – Oswald Spengler, Men and Technics, 1932.
(Is that cheating to quote from another book quoted in the book?)

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, (apparently forty years from now – which I only know from reading the online synopsis), the world kind-of sucks. It’s pretty much as the stereotypical futurists say it might be: the oceans have risen; there are carbon-taxes and credits; NASA exists only to clean up near-earth space junk; everyone is plugged into the net with AI-goggles, contacts, implants, etc; terrorists managed to set off some dirty-bombs on “Awfulday”; China is the new world power; and somehow the 0.1% are part of an Illuminati-esque club openly embracing their ability to pull the power strings.

In the midst of all of this Gerald the Garbage Man, AKA an astronaut who cleans up near-earth debris, snares a crystal pellet. This “artifact” is no mere space junk, it is a messenger from another civilization. This sets off a major worldwide maelstrom. What do the people on the other side of the pellet want? Do they come in peace? And, of course, the net is all a twitter with conspiracy theorists, Luddites, optimists, pessimists, techno-theologians, etc.

This book follows several story arcs including: Gerald; a trillionaire space-junkie; his cosmos-loving mother; a Hollywood-type who speaks for the Luddites; a poor man who may have found a second artifact; and a hot-shot reporter. The web that connects them spins tighter and tighter as the true purpose and meaning of the artifact becomes clearer.

This book also jumps between following the main characters and quoting from literature, blogs and news stories. It takes no time to explain the technology that is in use, rather assuming that the reader will catch on through context. Both are literary devices that many authors use. But, it makes for hard reading. I wasn’t quite aware of everything going on and comfortable with this version of Earth until at least half-way through the book. So much jumping around, not only between story lines, but also between formats, coupled with trying to discern the unexplained technology and history, left me a bit dizzy.

I am also unsure if the author is trying for some social/political commentary. It appears that he is laying it on thick. Is that why the oceans have risen? To mock our inability to curb carbon? Was this written post-Occupy movement and as a criticism of the 1%? Is there a jumble of formats to point out how scattered our methods of communication have become? Is this a statement on our society’s short attention span?

Brin has written The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? And that theme is readily apparent in this book as well. There is no doubt that this book is a statement on how technology can either save or destroy humanity and that we are always one step away from civilization and/or planet ending disaster.

Now, let’s be honest here, I was really excited to be reading a real book by an established author. It is quite a change of pace from vampire sex novels. And I welcome having to actually put thought into a book I am reading, as my brain may have atrophied from reading about too many throbbing members. The premise of this book is interesting, as well as the weaving together of the multiple story-lines (although, the intelligent dolphins are a bit too much).

But, if I didn’t have to read this book to review, I doubt I would have made it past the half-way point. The writing style reminded me of why I don’t learn anything from academic conferences: the avoidable over-reliance on too-technical jargon and the unavoidable switch between various accents. Just when I am getting used to the German’s English, the next speaker is Chinese and I have to readjust all over again. I just can’t get comfortable enough with the messenger to hear the actual message. It’s not that I need the popcorn fluff of romance novels, A Light in August and One Hundred Years of Solitude aren’t really a walk in the park, but at least with those I can slip into the novel, let the world wash over me, and enjoy the story. Here, I was expending too much mental energy on literary device switching to really get into the book. Plus, the author was a bit too clever for his own good, because there are a few story-lines that were all allusion and never spelled out. According to some, I am a “complete idiot” for not “fully” understanding Kubrick movies. Perhaps that is my problem here, as I am pretty sure the author felt he resolved all the story-lines, but frankly, I was left confused. And not in a good way.

In short: if you have ADD, can read three novels at once, and are fully comfortable with techno-jargon, then this book is for you. In the end I was glad I slogged through, because about three-quarters of the way in, either I finally gained enough ADD to adjust, or the story just got too darn gripping to pull away. Plus, for all his gloom and doom prophecies, it appears Brin does have a spark of hope in humanity.

– Amy Sharma

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